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Footloose and fence-free;Books

A RIGHT TO ROAM. By Marion Shoard. Oxford University Press pound;8.99.

Publication of this book could hardly be more timely. It coincides with the Government's apparently re-discovered determination to add legislative muscle to its pre-election promiseto enhance public access to the countryside, in effect substituting permanent rights for limited and temporary favours. As the author shrewdly foresees, the 1998-99 investigation of the possibilities of voluntary collaboration with land-owners has proved a cul-de-sac.

No one has more credibility here than Marion Shoard, who has been generating and documenting the debate about access for a quarter of a century. The progress of the argument has been waymarked by her books: The Theft of the Countryside (1980) and This Land is Our Land (1987). Her penchant for polemical titles belies her soberly analytical style and well-weighted, well-informed arguments.

One of her principal themes will be endorsed by anyone who walks regularly in the countryside: access has been deteriorating - for instance on privatised, ex-Forestry Commission land. The legal framework has become increasingly unhelpful - the greater hazard of criminalisation posed by the "aggravated trespass" concept of 1994 and the exemption of woodland and farmland from inheritance tax in 1992 (which removed a small incentive to provide access). A bewildering array of schemes providing financial support to landowners all offer opportunities for negotiating access, but remarkably few have been taken up.

A Right to Roam demonstrates how more than a century of well-intentioned access policies have been blocked or emasculated by landowners, rather as the tax-avoidance industry gets to work after every Budget.

Marion Shoard's arguments are well buttressed by case studies - a few inspiring, most depressing. Illuminating international comparisons are provided. This invaluable handbook maps out the situation, explains how it came about, supplies the rationale for change, and proposes an agenda to deliver it.

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